What is an ecosystem? At first glance, this seems to be a straightforward question, one to be answered by environmental scientists. However, the concept of an ecosystem, or more specifically, the action that posits the existence of an ecosystem, raises a series of questions that challenge some basic assumptions about the environment. For instance, is an ecosystem a concrete object in the same way that a stone or a tree is? Or instead, is an ecosystem a set of interactions between such objects?
While ecosystems of indeed exist, it is not without dramatic changes in our epistemology that we can speak of such objects without contradiction. Most importantly we must acknowledge that the existence of ecosystems is contingent on human society. Environmental scientists certainly play an important role in describing ecosystems and in prescribing correct management of these systems, but we miss an important aspect of humanity’s role in the environment if we see ecosystems as discrete objects that exist independent of human society.
Then what is an ecosystem? An ecosystem is a concept constructed by human society that aids us in perceiving an amazingly complex structure of interactions. This construction is rooted fundamentally in our language and discourse analysis is vital to understanding what an ecosystem might be. While there are advantages to seeing the ecosystem as a concrete object, it is my intention in this paper to describe an alternative view of ecosystems that is rooted in a post-positivistic, post-modern analysis of reality.
Hopefully, such analysis will also be useful in analyzing other concepts pertinent to environmental issues. To approach this alternative view, I will outline the concept of discourse as formulated by Michel Foucault, summarize the views and extensions of post-Foucauldian discourse analytic theorists, and finally apply these concepts to the question of ecosystems. Throughout, I will address the epistemological changes implicit in discourse analysis. A discourse is an institutionalized way of speaking that determines not only what we say and how we say it, but also what we do not say.
Originating in the field of linguistics, the term discourse initially referred to whole units of speech (conversations) and the speech community in which these units were communicated. William Labov (1972) and other sociolinguists have used discourse analysis primarily as a descriptive tool, leaving epistemological and post-modern considerations aside. Michel Foucault (1972) transformed the concept of discourse from its linguistic formulation and applied it to the social sciences.
He rigorously identified and typologized the structures of discourses, emphasizing how discourses affect everything in our society while remaining nearly unobservable. He argued that, “in every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organized and redistributed according to a certain number of procedures, whose role is to avert its power and its dangers, to cope with chance events, to evade its ponderous, awesome materiality” (Foucault 1972). For Foucault, discourse is necessarily tied to systems of power insofar as the elite is able to maintain power by controlling what can be said.
Foucault (1972) identified three types of exclusion that can be used to control discourse: rules that prohibit what can be said, rules that distinguish reason from madness, and rules that determine truth and falsity. The first type, prohibition, refers to the rituals, practices, and privileges that determine who can say what in a given situation. These rules form a complex web that envelops our discussions, public and private, to allow only certain types of statements to exist.
Moreover, commenting on the hidden nature of these rules, Foucault noted that, “in appearance, speech may well be of little account, but the prohibitions surrounding it soon reveal its links with desire and power” (Foucault 1972). Foucault would argue that those who control the methods of prohibition are able to maintain control over society, even while giving the impression that speech is open and free. The second type of exclusion distinguishes reason from madness, rejection anything that does not fit a specific formulation of rationality.
Foucault argued that, historically, “a man was mad if his speech could not be said to form part of the common discourse of man. His words were considered null and void, without truth or significance… the madman’s speech did not strictly exist” (Foucault 1972). While the discourse of madness is often thought to be a relic of the past, Foucault would argue that the division between reason and madness is just as active as ever, only now it follows different tactics among different institutions.
Spiritual conceptions of nature and non-mechanistic methods of environmental management have both been labels as madness, a label that lends power to the more established conceptions of controlling the environment. The opposition of truth and falsity represents the third and most powerful type of exclusion. Foucault (1972) would argue that the truth of a statement depends on and (in a certain sense) is created by the discourse that surrounds it.
He said that “truth in a void” may exist, but that “one would only be in the true, however, if one obeys the rules of some discursive ‘policy’ which would have to be reactivates every time one spoke” (Foucault 1972). Discourse analysis rests on different epistemological bases from traditional positivist theory, though it is important to make clear, at the beginning, that discourse analysis does not reject traditional conceptions of truth at the most fundamental level. Indeed, Foucault pointed out that, “as a proposition, the division between truth and false in neither arbitrary, nor modifiable, nor institutional” (Foucault 1972).
However, human society is based on contingent, constructed “wills to knowledge” or “wills to truth” (Foucault 1972), which filter every statement and conception of truth. Thus, we cannot have meaningful knowledge of absolute truth. Much of Foucault’s writing focuses on describing the will to knowledge and the different forms it has taken, ranging from the conflicts between pre-Platonic and post-Platonic theories of knowledge to the clash of religious ceremonial knowledge with secular objectivist knowledge. At any oint in time, truth appears to be static, but the will to knowledge and its resulting truths have their own history, which Foucault would hold is based on changing conceptions of “the range of subjects to be learned, the history and the functions of the knowing subject, the history of material, technical, and instrumental investment in knowledge” (Foucault 1972), and many other things. The prevailing will to knowledge is created by the discourse that is dominant in a society. But is there such a thing as a true discourse that accurately describes the lack of knowledge about absolute truth and that cannot be corrupted by power?
Foucault would caution against this possibility, noting that true discourse “is incapable of recognizing the will to truth which pervades it; and the will to truth, having imposed itself upon us for so long, is such that the truth is seeks to reveal cannot fail to mask it” (Foucault 1972). Moreover, he warned that as a society, “only one truth appears before our eyes: one that enjoys wealth, fertility and sweet strength in all its insidious universality. In contrast, we are unaware of the prodigious machinery of the will to truth, with its vocation of exclusion” (Foucault 1972).
As such, many concepts which appear to us now as non-debatable, even prior to debate, are actually fundamental aspects of our truth that shape the outcome of our debates dramatically. Under the dominant will to truth of today, we cannot speak of environmental protection without speaking of ecosystems. Yet the word and the idea of the ecosystem did not exist until the later parts of the 20th century. The consensus that ecosystems exist as discrete entities shapes the way we perceive environmental management.
The rules of exclusion outlined above refer to the boundaries of a discourse, or of what exists on the exterior of a discourse, delimiting and controlling the existence of statements. Foucault also outlines the interior rules of discourse, those that are concerned with the classification, ordering, and distribution within a discourse. He argued that there are three types of constraints on discourse, “those limiting its powers, those controlling its chance appearances, and those which select from among speaking subjects” (Foucault 1972).
The first type of constraint, the limitations of power in a discourse, is made manifest by the endless work of commentary within a discourse. As new statements are spoken, abnormal suggestions that fall outside of the discourse are corrected by those who comment on the new works. Such commentary seeks to find and emphasize what is regular and structured, fitting new statements into the old discursive framework. This process seeks to make every new word merely a reiteration, whereby “the infinite rippling of commentary is agitated from within by the dream of masked repletion” (Foucault 1972).
This process perpetuates the discourse in its current state by limiting the powers that can change the discourse. The second type of constraint, the controlling of discursive appearances, is particularly evident in the disciplines of the academic world. Foucault maintained that “disciplines are defined by groups of objects, methods, their corpus of propositions considered to be true, the interplay of rules and definitions, of techniques and tools,” and that these traits describe “that which is required for the construction of new statements” (Foucault 1972).
Discourses are not stagnant, and while they have mechanisms such as commentary, which minimize the distorting effect of new statements, they must constantly adapt to new perceptions of reality that arise. The disciplines act as established and (unlike discourses) recognized systems of articulating new truths, though they contain very conservative mechanisms that allow limited production of truly novel ideas. The third type of constraint delimits who may employ a given discourse.
While there are many examples of when only certain voices are given credence, such as with expert witnesses or medical professionals, there are other mechanisms that operate below the surface to give power within a discourse to certain individuals. Foucault focused on the concept of ritual within our discourses, such as instances where the proper recitation and circumstances are necessary for a speaker to make authoritative statements.
Foucault held, “Religious discourses, juridical and therapeutic as well as, in some ways, political discourse are all barely dissociable from the functioning of a ritual that determines the individual properties and agreed roles of the speakers” (Foucault 1972). Moreover, the extensive rituals within the academic world of certification, tenure, and publishing, among many others, seek to give credence to a speaker independent of what is being said. Again, this serves a conservative function (one not without merit) within the academic discourses.
Combined, the exterior rules of exclusion and the interior rules of control outline some of the characteristics of social scientists’ conception of discourse. Foucault provides more detailed description of these mechanisms in The Archaeology of Knowledge, The Order of Things, and his lecture The Discourse on Language. Working from these texts, many theorists have expanded on Foucault’s theory of discourse, particularly in reference to environmental issues, while others have fleshed out how discourse can be controlled by an elite group for a specific end.
The most important additions to Foucault’s theories have been found in the interaction between the concepts of ideology and social hegemony. One contemporary version of ideology is summarized by Manfred Steger as a “system of widely shared ideas, patterned beliefs, guiding norms and values, and regulative ideals accepted as fact or truth by some group” (Steger 2002). Under this formulation, ideologies present individuals with a coherent picture of the world as it is and as it should be.
Specifically, ideology “supplies the symbols, norms, and images that go into the process of assembling and holding together individual and collective identities” (Steger 2002). Discourse surrounds, comments on, and transmits these symbols, norms, and images. Paul Ricoeur, in his Lectures on Ideology and Utopia (1986), describes three functions that ideology serves. First, ideology creates a distortion of reality, such that reality matches what is required by the ideology.
Second, ideology serves to increase the legitimacy of the authority, whether the authority is the state, the church, an institution, or even a social movement. Finally Ricoeur notes that ideology is important in the integration and maintenance of societal identity. Ricoeur’s analysis rests on a critique of positivist epistemology that is similar to Foucault’s. Ricoeur argued that there are no thoughts outside of ideology, and therefore, ideology shapes our perceptions of everything.
As a result, the knowledge that we believe to be true is constructed and is contingent on our ideologies. Most specifically, Ricoeur and Foucault share a similar critique of the neutrality of science. Both claim that science itself is rooted in language and is itself a system that denies certain (and possibly legitimate) versions of truth. When an ideology becomes so widespread that people begin to forget that there are positions contrary to the dominant ideology, the situation becomes one of cultural hegemony.
Antonio Gramsci, in The Prison Notebooks (1971), defines the concept of hegemony as “a power relationship between social groups and classes in which one class exercises leadership by gaining the active consent of subordinate groups” (Gramsci 1971). This happens when the elite are able to control the language of a society to instill certain commonsense values in the working class, such that they identify their own good with the good of the elite, even when it is not to their advantage.
A modern example of this might be when low-income workers support tax-cuts that benefit the rich or oppose other redistributive policies for ideological reasons. As Gramsci and others would argue, they are acting against their own interests because reality has been distorted such that they correlate their own interests with those of the rich. Although Gramsci’s heavy emphasis on economic class has received criticism, the overall theory of cultural hegemony adds much to the concept of discourse.
Because the values of a society are created and transmitted in language, control of language is the method by which hegemony can be created and maintained. When the dominant discourse of a society happens to align with a particular ideology, a situation of cultural hegemony is created where views alternative to the ideology can hardly be envisioned or communicated. In environmental language, there have been long periods with hegemonic discourses, though in modern times environmental discourses have become overlapping and competitive.
This is not to say, however, that a single discourse cannot be hegemonic for specific circumstances. As the preceding analysis indicates, there are deep differences between the epistemology of discourse analysis and the more traditional epistemological bases. Foucault and others emphasize a constructed view of reality that is decidedly post-modern and has post-positivistic versions of truth. While some post-modern theorists would go so far as to argue that everything is constructed and that there is no underlying reality or truth, this view is not necessary for a discourse-based view of reality.
Instead, it may be that there is objective truth out there, but that it is unapproachable and obscured by a flawed perception and deficient objectivity. In essence, the conclusions of our sciences and our society are seen best as an approximation of truth. Because of our flawed perception, however, we can never judge accurately how close our truths are to absolute truths. We can, however, analyze the interrelations between the various conflicting and concurring versions of truth.
An alternative epistemology that emphasizes how we construct our knowledge has been put forth by Jurgen Habermas in Knowledge and Human Interests (1971). He developed the concept of “communicative rationality” (Habermas 1971), where a proposition could be considered to be valid (or true) to the extent that is was agreed upon by a group of agents participating in an ideal speech situation. Habermas’ theory conflicts with the rationalist tradition by identifying rationality in the structures of interpersonal linguistic communication (discourses) rather than as absolute truths existing outside of human action.
Habermas also offers a theory of “discourse ethics” (Habermas 1971), which argues that a moral judgment has validity if agreed to by agents in the ideal speech situation. The emphasis on ideal speech lends itself well to discourse analysis. While it certainly may be the case, as Foucault suggested, that we cannot separate discourse from is constitutive power structure, it seems possible that discourse analysis could allow is to understand the forces at play, bringing us closer to the ideals of “communicative rationality” (Foucault 1966, Habermas 1971).
Andrew Dobson makes exactly this point in “Democratising Green Theory: Preconditions and Principles” (1996) where he argued that “all rational, uncoerced and knowledgeable individuals (i. e. all individuals in the ideal speech situation) will come to the conclusion that the ecological systems upon which human life depends should be protected” (Dobson 1996). More generally, this conclusion is what John Dryzek, in Discursive Democracy: Politics, Policy, and Political Science (1990), described as a “generalizable interest” (Dryzek 1990), or something that all rational people would agree is true.
For Dryzek, there is no objective rationality to which we should refer when debating environmental issues; rather, “the only remaining authority is that of a good argument, which can be advanced on behalf of the veracity of empirical description, understanding, and equally important, the validity of normative judgments” (Dryzek 1990). Dryzek’s conception of “generalizable interests” (Dryzek 1990) is explicitly based on discourse analytic arguments, and as such, he focuses on how we construct our knowledge, beliefs, and normative judgments about environmental issues.
Other social scientists and linguists have used the tools of discourse analysis to study specific environmental problems. Maarten Hajer, for instance in The Politics of Environmental Discourse: Ecological Modernization and the Political Process (1995), studied the transformations in discourse on acid rain in the Netherlands and Britain from late 1980 to early 1990, while Karen Litfin, in Ozone Discourses (1994), analyzed the changes that have occurred in the international discourse on global ozone layer depletion in the 1980s.
Common to these analyses is the finding that how we discuss the environment has profound effects on how we manage the environment. With the preceding discussion in mind, we can return to the question of what an ecosystem might be. An ecosystem is something that exists because we say that it exists. Rather than seeing an ecosystem as an object that exists independent of humans, it is better to see it as a category that we apply to our perception of the environment.
Specifically, it is a term that designates a particular level of analysis in the interactions and processes of the natural environment. Categorical descriptors, such as the word ‘ecosystem’, function in a way similar to the Platonic idea of forms insofar as they seek to find coherence between the objects of our perception (Plato’s Theory of Forms, Vesey 1980). However, these categories do not exist independently of humans (as in Plato’s Theory of Forms); rather, they were created by humans as we seek to communicate and analyze our reality.
Even though these categories do not exist in any absolute sense, and even though they can be (and constantly have been) created, modified, or eliminated, they still have a very observable impact on our environment. They serve a simplifying function that allows us to describe our perceptions and find similarity and order in a world that is otherwise incongruous, discontinuous, and unruly. Using the word ecosystem serves this simplifying function. Declaring that a certain portion of the natural environment is an ecosystem implies that there is internal coherence that has external similarity to other ecosystems.
This implication allows us to prescribe general management strategies that have worked in other systems, saving us the time and effort of identifying separate strategies for every circumstance. In general, the usefulness of categorical descriptors, such as ecosystems, depends on their ability to identify what is regular in a series of systems, as well as on their capacity to simplify our observations to allow for management. It is useful to consider how the term ecosystem relates to other words that describe the environment. In one sense, ecosystem designates a particular level of complexity within the environment.
Other terms, such as biosphere and population, categorize and bundle the environment into systems with greater or lesser complexity, between which there are infinitely many possible subdivisions, including terms such as habitat and bioregion. Following the epistemological considerations mentioned above, there might be an absolute reality upon which these terms are created (i. e. the physical material in the ecosystem), but we can only approach this reality through our perception, which is shaped by our categorization and thought.
What is of crucial importance, however, is that each of these terms implies a very different conception of the environment and prescribes very different management strategies. Words that’s describe the environment differ on more than just one level of complexity; they also differ in their context and how they relate to other systems. Consider the different implications in the terms natural environment and natural resources. Prior to the 1960s, these terms were synonymous in most uses, but now they contain dramatically different implications, including how the environment has value, how it relates to humans, and how we ought to manage it.
John Dryzek, in The Politics of the Earth: Environmental Discourses (1997), emphasizes this point, he argued that before 1960, “the discourse of industrialism was indeed hegemonic, to the extent that ‘the environment’ was hardly conceptualized” (Dryzek 1997). If the environment could not be conceptualized apart from its instrumental value to humans, it certainly could not be managed to protect ecosystems for their own sake. The terms that we choose to acknowledge and communicate are determined by the discourses at work in our society.
In so doing, discourse constructs the level at which we observe the natural environment (a term which itself is self constructed), the context in which we place the environment, and a host of other determinations. This creates the pre-debate consensus, which underlies all subsequent debates. As a result, controlling the discourse that surrounds our environmental debates is a very effective strategy to shape our environmental policy. Environmental discourse analysis seeks not only to understand how we construct our knowledge, but also to form critical reasons for accepting some aspects of discourses while rejecting others.
We cannot live free of discourse, but we can seek to improve the way we discuss the environment. To the extent that we cannot approach “truth in the void” (Foucault 1972) and must instead focus on the truths we create, it is vital that we have a critical theory for addressing such truths. Habermas’ theory of communicative rationality, premised on the post-modern epistemological considerations and discourse analytic concerns mentioned above, provides that critical theory. Ecosystems exist as constructions of our environmental discourse.
Vis-a-vis Habermas’ theory, we can say that to the extent our discourse resembles the ideal speech situation, we can meaningfully speak of ecosystems as a true conception of the environment. We can say that ecosystems are a right conception to the extent that communicatively rational speakers agree they are a useful category for making sense of the environment. If environmental scientists present new information that leads our discourse to a different conception of the environment, then our truth about ecosystems has changed.
If truth is constructed by our environmental discourse, it is of vital importance to analyze where our society resembles or diverges from the ideal speech situation. Although Foucault would suggest that power is always present in our discourse, distorting our reality to match a particular ideology, there is no reason to believe that these distortions might not be understood and possibly diminished through close analysis of our environmental debate.
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